Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the potential to shake up the Republican presidential contest and would enter the race as a probable national frontrunner. But just two years ago, Perry couldn't even count on the Lone Star State to grant him another term as governor.
There was a widely held prediction that he would retire instead of seek a third term in 2010 because Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison could handily beat him in the GOP primary.
Perry possesses a keen political acumen that has seen him through several tough races during his 26-year career. He is attractive, well-liked, has a talent for retail politicking and is knowledgeable on policy matters. But Perry spent his first few years as governor in the shadow of his popular predecessor, then-newly elected President George W. Bush. After he took office in late 2000, Perry had a reputation as a politically motivated, uninspiring leader.
"He was not disliked," said Royal Masset, a retired Texas GOP political operative who lives in Austin. "But he was not perceived as a strong leader. He was seen as a figurehead, as most Texas governors have been."
The governor sowed the seeds of his eventual rise beginning in 2005, Texas Republicans say, when he was viewed as acting decisively to help the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, as he managed the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which blew through Houston and greater southeast Texas, Perry's leadership stood in stark contrast to what many Texans had witnessed in Louisiana, GOP operatives say.
But it is President Barack Obama, the man Perry would face in the 2012 general election should he win the Republican nod — and the subsequent rise of the tea party — who is credited more than anything else with shaping the governor's recent political stardom.
"There is no doubt that the election and ascendancy of Barack Obama sparked in Rick Perry a new sense of public purpose," said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans and a strong Perry supporter. "The clarity of the opposition increased the clarity of his efforts."
Perry's conservatism has rarely been questioned, although he did endorse former New York mayor and moderate Republican Rudy Giuliani for president in 2008. Yet it was his staunch and vocal opposition to Obama's agenda, beginning soon after the president was inaugurated in 2009, that shone a spotlight on the Lone Star State. Perry railed against the administration's more than $800 billion economic stimulus package, Obama's health care law and proposals for climate change regulation.
Democrats think Perry could be a formidable Obama challenger, but they plan to highlight his most controversial positions should he run.
At the top of the list is Perry's talk in April 2009 of seceding from the Union. He later walked back the statement but not his criticism of Washington, D.C., overreach.
The governor's message was a perfect fit for a conservative-leaning state with a strong libertarian streak. Texas has no state income tax, counts the energy industry as among its biggest economic drivers, has a part-time Legislature and has among the weakest governorships of any state in the nation. But it also fit Perry, whose long-held conservative populism was finally given a prominent voice — and a hungry audience — in a then-burgeoning movement that would become the tea party.
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